How’s the Drug Trade Doing?
If you’re anything like me, you haven’t thought a lot about drugs in the past few months. However, even as the pandemic claims hundreds of thousands of lives, it is important to remember that people are still dying of other causes. Wars are still being fought, terrorist attacks are still killing, and heart attacks are still happening. One of the myriad of ways Americans succumb to death are drug overdoses. When you think of dying from taking drugs, you likely imagine shady deals on street corners. Nowadays, however, synthetic opioids are the cause of most drug-related deaths, killing over 19,000 a year. For reference, that’s equivalent to a 9/11 every two months. Most of this tragedy is caused by illegal fentanyl. So, what is that, and what can we do to reduce the number of people harmed by it?
Fentanyl: From Pain Treater to Dance Fever
Fentanyl was originally produced by the pharmaceutical industry to provide pain relief for acute cancer patients. That’s why it’s 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. Almost immediately, drug companies began marketing fentanyl to patients who didn’t need it, in some cases even offering bribes and publishing a rap video (I’m not joking). On top of that, illicit labs began forming around the world, and fentanyl can now be found mixed in with cocaine, heroin, and other drugs. This means that many who die of fentanyl overdose didn’t even know what killed them. In addition, because fentanyl is so potent, it only takes tiny miscalculations for someone to die. That might explain street names like “poison” and “murder 08.” Other names, like “China girl,” “Chinatown,” and “China white,” can be accounted for by the fact that most of the fentanyl in the U.S comes from China. There’s two routes it might take to get here:
- An individual goes on the open web, and finds a website that sells fentanyl powders or tablets. They pay for it in Bitcoin, type in their shipping address, and a few days later a package delivered by USPS arrives with the drugs.
- A wholesale seller (like a Mexican cartel) uses the dark web to buy large amounts of the drugs in Bitcoin. It is smuggled into the country, where the fentanyl is mixed with other drugs and transferred over the border and sold.
You might notice that both of these paths have steps that were damaged by the pandemic. It also doesn’t help that Wuhan is a major hub of fentanyl production. This begs the question, how exactly was fentanyl impacted by COVID-19?
Panic At The Production Facility
As Wuhan closed down and word of the virus spread, advertisements online began to inform buyers that supply and shipment were currently impossible, but as soon as shipping restarted they (the Chinese producers) would talk to wholesalers. Soon, Mexican cartels turned to the Shan State in Myanmar for supplies. Even so, the DEA has reported that supply is constricted, yet deaths stay stable. This period only lasted a couple of months, and now that Wuhan has largely reopened, we expect fentanyl deaths to continue increasing. Interestingly, while smuggling into the U.S has gone down significantly, domestic drug traffickers continue to sell, suggesting they stockpiled for such an occasion.
What To Do
As you can see, illicit fentanyl has cost thousands of lives, and doesn’t seem to be slowed much by the pandemic. What can we do to reduce its harm and prevent people from getting addicted?
- Support harm-reduction and addiction treatment programs in your local area. These have been proven to reduce deaths efficiently and substantially.
- If COVID-19 has proven anything, it’s that constricting supply won’t reduce deaths. Tell politicians and elected officials to divert excess resources to reducing demand instead, through providing accessible medical and psychological services.
- Reach out to your neighbors and friends. Social isolation, unemployment, and boredom are some of the best predictors of drug use. Unfortunately, these are all abundant during a pandemic.
It’s unlikely that fentanyl will cease to be a problem in the near future; it’s just too addictive and too widespread. Just because that’s true doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to slow it.
Chapman, B. (2019, May 3). Billionaire drug company founder guilty of bribing doctors to prescribe dangerous opioid. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/john-kapoor-fentanyl-opiod-crisis-insys-drug-company-boss-convicted-a8897871.html
Fentanyl. (n.d.). United States Drug Enforcement Agency. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.dea.gov/factsheets/fentanyl
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United States Drug Enforcement Agency. (2018). Fentanyl [Photograph]. https://www.dea.gov/galleries/drug-images/fentanyl